Rationale for POxBo

This online edition of work originally begun in the mid-twentieth century is brought to you in the confident belief that Ker's listing of pastedowns has enduring value which is enhanced by making it digitally accessible.

Neil Ker’s Fragments of Medieval Manuscripts used as Pastedowns in Oxford Bindings, first published by Oxford Bibliographical Society in 1954 was immediately acknowledged as ground-breaking. Nothing quite like it has been attempted on the same scale since then. There remains much that we can learn from it, both in the terms of the detail he provided and in the method employed. It exemplifies how bringing together two sets of evidence, which are often studied separately, can enrich our historical understanding.

As his title demonstrates, the topic was the gathering together of a mass of examples of fragments from manuscripts used within bindings made in Oxford. His central insight was that an identification of the specifics of a binding could help pinpoint in both place and time when a manuscript was dismantled. From that, Ker realised, it would be possible to construct some understanding of the chronology and processes of the destruction of manuscript culture in early modern England.

Ker’ was able to conceive his Pastedowns because of his a close knowledge of what was, at the time of his research, the recent scholarship by the likes of Strickland Gibson and J. B. Oldham on late medieval and early modern bindings - work which he himself enhanced in his book. In the fifteenth century, a new style of binding was introduced from mainland Europe: it involved stamping the leather used to cover the boards to provide decoration (panels, rolls and, later centrepieces). This practice became common-place in the main binding places of London, Oxford and Cambridge, and scholars before Ker had been able to individuate tools used to particular locations and sometimes particular binders. Ker’s own work was able to develop this further and, subsequent to him, David Pearson has provided yet more detail. The result is that, with the known date-range of the use of a binding, combined with the date of publication of the printed book, it becomes possible to narrow down the time-period when a manuscript was recycled in the binding shop to a few years and sometimes to an individual year.

Ker, therefore, presented a catalogue of fragments organised by binding style (for further explanation see the Explanation of the Numbering used in POxBo). His work in listing these fragments has not been superseded but it has been augmented. In the first place, he continued the work after its publication, marking up his own copy with new finds made in Britain and in the United States. These notes were once source of David Pearson’s supplement to Ker which appeared in his Oxford Bookbinding 1500-1640 (Oxford, 2000). To partner that volume, its publishers, Oxford Bibliographical Society, provided a reprint of Ker’s 1954 volume, and the Society’s editors, David Rundle and Scott Mandelbrote, took the opportunity to list further corrigenda and addenda.

While reviewers were unanimous in hailing the content of Ker’s original volume, some grumbled about the volume being difficult to use. This was because of both its necessarily complicated ordering and its multiple indices. In some ways, this was a volume waiting for spreadsheets and online searchability to happen. The complexity of what we call ‘Ker’ has been increased by the welcome presence of the supplement provided by Pearson and by the 2004 corrigenda and addenda. There is a clear benefit in combining these together in one place, and a manifest use to making them all searchable online.

Accessibility is only one of the reasons for providing POxBo. As already asserted, there remains much that we can learn from both Ker’s method and from the information he gathered:

  1. Ker’s work should teach us that the death of a manuscript is as worthy of investigation as its life. His studies and those of Pearson allow us to pinpoint with relative accuracy the moment a manuscript was dismantled in early modern Oxford. This information deserves to be recorded and investigated.
  2. Ker also recognised that the frequent use of discarded manuscripts in bindings in Oxford meant that parts of one codex could survive in various different locations and that there was a possibility of partial reconstruction of the original manuscript.
  3. His work was, in part, driven by an interest in how medieval manuscript culture ended and the ‘big data’ which has now been gathered allows us to consider those questions afresh.

These insights set out a framework for future work. There are limits to what this stage of the project attempts to achieve at this point. Ker’s Pastedowns included no images of manuscripts, and there has been no attempt to rectify this here. That is because the intention of Lost Manuscripts is to return to the fragments over time, to catalogue them in more detail, with images, and to undertake the work of partial reconstruction, creating new Babel manuscripts. This also means that there has been no systematic attempt at this point to relate the material in POxBo to entries in the main catalogue, but for an example of what is planned for the future, see POxBo, 29. For more on this, see Next Steps.